Bring out the dead

September 13, 2007

“We don’t do body counts”. So said General Tommy Franks in 2002, in response to a journalist’s question about Afghan civilian fatalities. A year later and a similarly bullish George Bush, standing on the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln, declared “Mission Accomplished” in that campaign’s sister conflict in Iraq.


Four years on, with General Petraeus presenting his report on the progress of the surge to Congress, no one is pretending that the mission is near being accomplished anymore. And there, buried in the appendices lies the evidence for a reversal of Gen Franks’s statement as well.


Slide three of Gen Petraeus’s visual aids is titled “Iraq Civilian Deaths”. It seems the Pentagon do do body counts after all.


Gen Franks’s now famous declaration became the spur for a set of projects that seeked to add up what it seemed the coalition was unwilling to count. For a while a website run by a bunch of activists,, was the standard measure for civilian deaths in Iraq – it was also the only measure.


Their methodology was simple, they counted deaths recorded in the media, providing an upper and lower bound when there were conflicting reports. They have since refined their techniques to include hospital and morgue reports. The Right were furious – National Review (who call a “hard-left” website) produced a comprehensive rebuttal of their methods:


 “if a doctor says 50 people were killed in an air raid, and “most” were civilians, IBC will add 26 to its minimum, and 49 to its maximum.”


“very few of the largest entries — and the top 50 entries (of over 2,000) make up more than 50 percent of the total deaths — can be substantiated”


“There are two entries with 40 and 41 deaths as the maximums, and, amazingly, zero deaths as the minimum”


Some of their points are fair. IBC would probably be the first to say that their techniques are very far from perfect. And ideally statistics on something so serious should be compiled by an impartial organisation – rather than one whose home page contains the image of a B2 dropping bombs (presumably on helpless civilians). However, the only organisation that could probably pull off accurate data collection in a war zone like Iraq would be one sanctioned and run by the US.


But in any case the debate has moved on. Thanks to a report published in the Lancet, most of the criticism of IBC comes from the Left: it is now accused of undercounting rather than overcounting.


In 2004 a study in the Lancet by the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore concluded that 100,000 people had died in Iraq. The same team estimated this year it had reached 655,000. Their figures were obtained by door-to-door surveys of households. They dwarfed those estimated by IBC. Suddenly, there was a macabre competition: with the anti-war camp seizing on the Lancet report, the IBC became almost considered the moderate source.


Then, in 2005, President Bush was asked directly by a reporter how many civilians had died. His answer, 30,000, was oddly close to the lower bound provided by the Iraq Body Count at the time. It seems that with a free market in body counts, George Bush had shopped around for the most favourable stats.


There is only so far that neo-con market liberalism will take you, and I expect that outsourcing body counts is that limit. At some point, quietly, someone in the Pentagon started counting. Petraeus’s graph may be dismissed as propaganda, produced using unpublished methods, but – even as propaganda – civilians matter again. And that’s no bad thing.


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